Get It Right: J.J. Hensley
Portraying the Secret Service Accurately
By J.J. Hensley
True story: The shot rang out from somewhere behind me. Instantly, I shielded the person walking beside me and began pushing her away from the threat. The protectee instinctively struggled against my efforts, but I held firm, refusing to relinquish my grip. No matter the cost to me, I would not allow an assailant to get a clean shot at the intended target. The protectee was stunned. The crowd around us was mortified. The realization I came to next was one I will never forget.
It is no secret that the United States Secret Service protects the President of the United States. That aspect of the job has been described—with varying levels of accuracy—in countless books and movies. However, few people understand the full scope of the agency’s responsibilities, and that each and every agent is in fact a criminal investigator. The Secret Service has agents stationed all over the United States and in many foreign countries. Obviously, not every agent can be protecting the President—so what are these men and women doing on a daily basis?
While the role of protecting the leader of the free world gets most of the attention, the agency also protects numerous other individuals. Agents provide round-the-clock protection for not only the President, but also his or her immediate, and sometimes extended, family as well. Additionally, the Vice President and the VP’s family members get similar treatment. Beyond those duties, the Secret Service is responsible for protecting visiting heads of state. This could be anyone from the British Prime Minister to the President of Equatorial Guinea. The protection duties go well beyond transporting “protectees” around in motorcades and surrounding them while they are on stage.
There is also an intelligence aspect to the job that requires any potential threat to be investigated and for any item of notoriety to be documented. While a bystander may see a handful of agents getting off Air Force One with the President when he visits a midwestern city, there have probably been dozens of other officers and agents on the ground conducting advance work throughout the previous week. Even if an agent is working an assignment at Secret Service headquarters, it is nearly impossible to predict what he or she may encounter. At one point while I was assigned to the agency’s Intelligence Division, I wrote a report regarding Vice-President Dick Cheney shooting his hunting partner in the face. Would you believe, this only happened once in my career?
Even with the long list of responsibilities surrounding the protection of U.S. and foreign leaders, Secret Service agents are always busy protecting something else—the U.S. economy. The Secret Service was created in 1865 with the sole mission of combatting counterfeit currency. To this day, thousands of agents carry out that mission while also investigating other financial crimes such as check fraud, check counterfeiting, credit card fraud, wire fraud, and numerous other federal crimes. A secondary effect of investigating crimes such as these, are that the cases often involve other illegal activities such as drug dealing, illicit gun purchases, and violent crimes. All of this means that agents are trained to be skilled investigators and have to be able to interview everybody from savvy white collar criminals working at Fortune 500 companies to a schizophrenic homeless individual who have made threats against a Secret Service protectee. Agents need to be able to lead a raid into a drug den on one day and drive an armored limousine in a motorcade on the next.
Needless to say, the variety of responsibilities assigned to the Secret Service gives authors who choose to incorporate agents into their stories a great deal of latitude when developing a plot. By delving into these fields of investigation, writers can take their stories in multiple directions while possibly teaching the reader about an agency that many do not fully understand.
Misconceptions on the Secret Service
While some of the duties of an agent with the Secret Service are wide-ranging and well-publicized, I still come across many misconceptions in works of fiction. A lot of things have made me cringe during this election year, but one misconception that tends to make me shake my head in disbelief is that a president or presidential candidate is surrounded by a group of Secret Service agents who support a particular platform and remove protestors from events. This simply is not the case and for good reasons. In this piece, I will attempt to dispel a few myths and explain why those who bravely serve in the United States Secret Service do not allow personal beliefs to factor into the way the job is performed.
“What President did you report to?”
I have been asked that question multiple times by people who mean well enough but do not understand how the United States Secret Service functions. I served in the agency from 2000 to the end of 2006 and at no time did I report to any president, vice-president, candidate, or any other individual designated to receive Secret Service protection. I started my career during the Clinton administration and finished it during the administration of George W. Bush. During that span, I helped to protect individuals associated with both of those administrations as well as countless visiting foreign heads of state. My colleagues and I approached the job in the same manner regardless if the protectee was a Republican, a Democrat, the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or the president of Micronesia.
Agents report through the Secret Service’s chain of command and not to any politician. This is logical since elected politicians come and go, but the agency is a permanent fixture. Agents are trained to follow procedures that ensure the rights of individuals are respected while threats are addressed using the minimum amount of force possible. For agents to take orders from protectees who may not be familiar with specific policies, use of force regulations, and federal statutes, would be risky for all involved. Not only would it be unfair to expect a protectee to understand the intricacies of protective operations, but visiting heads of state could not possibly be expected to be familiar with laws in the United States. Thus, agents do not work for, or report to, anybody they are assigned to protect.
“Why did the USSS remove that protestor?”
First of all, please note the proper abbreviation for the agency is USSS, not SS. The abbreviation “SS” has a negative connotation to it from the days of Nazi Germany and there are already enough people out there who misunderstand the role of the USSS. Let’s not make things any tougher for the agency.
As for why the USSS removed a protestor: The chances are they did not. Agents do not remove protestors unless they potentially pose a physical threat to the protectee. Time and time again, we have seen news clips of protestors being removed from events and sometimes those removing the individuals are wearing suits and earpieces. Usually, those individuals are event or campaign staff members who have asked the individual to leave and then removed the person for trespassing once the protestor failed to depart.
Just as if you hosted a party in a large banquet room for which you paid and decided you wanted somebody removed, political committees and event hosts can do the same thing. Most of the time, the protestor is being removed for violating some local statute such as trespassing, disorderly conduct, or disturbing the peace. You may disagree on the legality of this process, but I am only pointing out that the Secret Service does not get involved in these matters as the main focus of the agents is, and should be, the welfare of the protectee. Additionally, while Secret Service agents will attempt to accommodate a person under agency protection, they do not take direct orders from a protectee. Some works of fiction will include scenes in which the president orders the mindless agent to carry out some task (legal or not). This is not how it works. Agents are college educated, analytical, and receive an abundance of legal training. These are not Imperial Stormtroopers from Star Wars (who are much worse shots than agents).
“ How could you possibly protect someone who believes ________?”
Can you imagine the nightmare that would ensue if Secret Service agents started deciding what viewpoints warranted protection? It would be similar to having individual police officers decide they are not going to enforce any laws with which they disagree. The result would be pure chaos.
Look. Here is the bottom line. The Secret Service is in the business of protecting lives, not assessing a value to those lives. Perhaps you think some lives are not worth protecting and that is your prerogative. However, every successful assassination makes a future assassination seem more feasible in someone’s mind. If we cannot protect world leaders in the United States, where we place a great deal of emphasis on freedom of expression, then it becomes open season on leaders everywhere. Aside from all this, when an attack occurs, agents react according to their training. The practiced reactions become reflexes and when decisive action is needed the last thing an agent is thinking about is the protectee’s stance on abortion. How reflexive are these reactions? Allow me to expound on the real-life example I used at the beginning of this article.
A few years ago, I was with a protectee at a baseball game which was in a rain delay. A storm with strong wind gusts had forced the spectators into the crowded concourse area and the protectee decided to walk around the concrete walkways. Suddenly, a deafening “bang” rang out from behind us. Without any hesitation, I draped myself over the back of the protectee and began moving her toward the motorcade.
Of course, it took me a few seconds to remember I had not been an agent for quite a while and the “protectee” was actually my wife who was wondering why she was being forcibly abducted by her own spouse. Even if the “motorcade” would not have been parked a half-mile away, I am certain I would have been disappointed to discover that instead of a limo, all we had to escape in was a dented-up Volkswagen Jetta. Yes, it was a tad bit of an overreaction (or as my wife diplomatically calls it “a psycho moment”). But, the chain of events was a learning experience for me. I discovered that the reactions that had been instilled in me were still present and that a portable beer stand toppling over onto concrete sounds a lot like a gunshot. Seriously. The similarity is uncanny.
My point is that agents react according to the hundreds of hours they have spent training to ward off an attack. To train people to step into the line of fire instead of jumping behind cover is incredibly difficult and once the training becomes part of one’s muscle memory, it does not simply fade away (as many Pittsburgh Pirates fans now realize after watching me accost my wife).
Although Secret Service agents are thoughtful individuals who certainly have their own political viewpoints, those opinions vanish when it is time to go to work and responses to a perceived threat are automatic.
So if you create a work of fiction involving the Secret Service, please take a few minutes to do some basic research. The job of a Special Agent in the United States Secret Service delves into enough areas of interest that a writer can remain dedicated to accuracy while constructing a story worthy of presidential treatment.
J.J. Hensley, a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service, is the author RESOLVE, MEASURE TWICE, and CHALK’S OUTLINE. RESOLVE was named one of the BEST BOOKS OF 2013 by Suspense Magazine and was a finalist for Best First Novel at the 2014 Thriller Awards. J.J. is a regular contributor to ITW’s website, The Thrill Begins. He resides near Pittsburgh, PA.
To learn more, visit his website, his blog, and follow him on Facebook and Twitter (@JJHensleyauthor).
- The March 2023 Edition of The Big Thrill is Here! - February 28, 2023
- On the Cover: Jacqueline Holland - February 28, 2023
- On the Cover: Jonathan Kellerman - February 28, 2023